As news reaches us that the Labour Party have finally started to question the legitimacy of the proposed sell of Forestry Commission land, Forest of Dean native Owen Adams writes about this particular piece of the Coalition’s Black Sky thinking.
There are dozens of ways into the Forest. Round the back of housing estates, past the garden of a ramshackle cottage, the other side of a grassy slag-heap, alongside a babbling brook, crashing through a thicket on a near-vertical slope, avoiding abandoned mine shafts, to a well-ordered hard-stone Forestry track. You never know what you might find, you could encounter a sounding and a grunting of sharp-tusked boar, a cluster of psychedelic lichen, a bundle of stones of a ruined 18th-century squatters’ hut, maybe even a black panther… or in the past couple of months almost certainly yellow ribbons tied around oaks, and Not For Sale signs.
I’d always taken it for granted that I was free to go where I liked, and so was anyone else. But the Government is trying to stop me and millions of others nationally from enjoying unhindered access to this Forest and other forests across England. The – would you mind terribly excusing me here – utter BASTARDS are intent on selling off all our public forest estate. This is an area greater than Greater London that costs each person in England 30p or less per year to manage and maintain.
I spell Forest with a capital F because the Forest is where I live, where my paternal family originates and where I grew up and returned hence. The Forest is in us and we are in the Forest – and I think most other inhabitants and many visitors feel the same way. Until quite recently, to be a Forester you had to be born within the ancient Hundred of St Briavels – trickier now the maternity unit has closed – and anyone else, myself included, was a vurriner (Vorest dialect for ‘foreigner’). This latest struggle for our Forest has seen even day-trippers from the cities being embraced as Foresters. For perhaps the first time born-and-bred Foresters concede their homeland belongs to people hundreds of miles away as well as those within it.
The Forest of Dean, also known as the Land Between Two Rivers (Severn and Wye) is our land, praised in a 1981 Parliamentary debate for its “rugged individual spirit”. The result was that this Forest alone was given special protection against sell-off, as most of our customs and age-old traditions – including the free running of sheep, cycling and picnicking – aren’t enshrined in law. The Forestry Act allowed 15% of all public forests throughout Britain, outside the core of the Dean, to be flogged off per year, and many chunks already have. One example is Westwood, to the east of Hereford, where mountain-bikers who’d used it for downhill races for years suddenly found their access barred. The same for horse-riders from a nearby stud farm. In one wood in the Mendips, walkers who’d regularly hiked through the trees were told they wouldn’t be allowed to for another 30 years due to new planting.
In the Wye Valley walking book, there’s a circular route down to the river and back from the charming village of English Bicknor. The woods the footpaths go through have a totally different feel. They’re privately owned and packed with pheasants. You can’t scramble down ravines because there are wire fences to manage the pheasants ready for the next lucrative shooting day. Across the Wye, all you can hear is shooting and carrion crows. Belonging? It feels more as if I’m intruding on an invitation-only death-fest.
Since being claimed as a royal stomping-ground by Edward The Confessor in 1016, it took centuries of dissent for Foresters to legally exist, work and live among the trees (despite them having worked the iron from before the Romans came). Only from the mid-19th century. Soon after the First World War, the Forest became managed by the State-run Forestry Commission. Without informing the people, several years ago the Government registered all our – the people’s – land as belonging to Defra.
In 1884, an anonymous poem was published in the Dean Forest Mercury (now The Forester newspaper). The Forester’s Egg raged against a Bill going through Parliament which would have threatened the rights of freeminers (Foresters granted by birth in a custom dating from ‘tyme out of mind’ and later made into law, to dig their own gale, a small hole and tunnel to dig out coal) and commoners the customary privilege to graze their animals:
“Away with the Bill! ‘tis not needed at all,
‘Tis not what you asked for, it came without call;
Your ‘bit of waste land, at five shillings a perch’,
Is treated as nonsense, and left in the lurch;
Away with the Bill! Sound forth its death knell!
They’ll suck out the egg if they once prick the shell!”
Another Bill now, with the grey-dreary title of the Public Bodies Bill, seeks to enable this, or any future Government, to sell off any or all of our woods in England. Forestry minister Jim Paice told a Lords select committee on November 24, that the Government “wishes to proceed with …very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it”. The Viscount Bledisloe, noted painter Rupert Bathurst, whose family has owned the same estate on the Forest of Dean border for 300 years, describes the proposed law as “an alarming blanket power likely to threaten the Forest in perpetuity”.
The 1884 Bill was dropped in Parliament, partly thanks to the intervention of the MP. Again, in 1981, when the Thatcher government attempted privatisation, the Forest’s Tory MP Paul Marland came to its rescue, after some persuasion from his constituents.
In May 2010, Conservative MP Mark Harper doubled his majority in the Forest of Dean, and was given a junior minister’s post in the Government. This has put him in the unenviable position of being at the heart of a proposal intensely unpopular to his electorate. It meant he hasn’t been able to face his concerned public, except in the form of radio interviews and press releases repeating the Government soft-sell of a “community buy-out”, ignoring that we already own it. His office in the small town of Cinderford is currently surrounded by buildings bearing Hands Off Our Forest murals and signs. The clocktower just up the hill has a banner put up by the town council, a nearby art gallery has filled its window with a large protest artwork depicting riotous Foresters versus diggers.
Mr Harper has pledged to hold a public meeting “after the White Paper comes out”. This “White Paper” was not preceded with a green paper inviting consultation, as is the usual practice. By the time you read this, the White Paper may have come out. I wouldn’t like to guess precisely what’s in it, but here are some clues: a draft public consultation document on the future of Forestry, which cited a 2009 report which revealed a large majority of people were happy with their public forests run by the Forestry Commission, and then asked people to choose between five options – all of which were alternative ways of privatisation.
No option to keep our Forests public is offered, and a mole told me selling our Forests is just a dummy run for the sale of all our public assets – nature reserves, beaches, city parks, the lot. “The Coalition is determined to railroad this through, whatever happens,” said a source.
Our campaign Hands Off Our Forest is a mainstream one, supported by everyone from traditionalist Tories to Pagan anarchists, schoolchildren to war veterans, the Bishops of Gloucester and Guildford to Bill Bryson and Richard Wilson. More than 3,000 turned out for a rally on January 3. Speaker Jonathon Porritt reckoned: “If this campaign in the Forest of Dean becomes the symbol of rethinking what we want from our Government, it’ll be a great deal more powerful than what Mark Harper and his colleagues currently believe.”
Our rally was organised within three weeks and had the effect we wanted to draw everyone’s attention to the threat to our public Forests. In the past few weeks, we have heard from campaigners in the New Forest, Sherwood, Haldon, Thetford and the Lake District, and I’m fielding a raft of national media enquiries. An unknown quantity of artistic statements, protest songs, banner-making and guerilla yellow ribboning has bubbled up from amidst the trees, as people convert rage and disbelief into positive creative forms of opposition.
Thousands more people have put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboards, and swamped MPs, ministers and Lords with letters and emails (see Parliament’s website for their names and addresses), urging them to vote for amendments that will protect our forests in the Public Bodies Bill, and copy in our representative in the Lords, Baroness Jan Royall to the correspondence. You, reader, might live miles away from a forest, but I guess you might want to freely walk, cycle or trek through one in the future. The onus is on everyone to fill Lords’ mailbags right now.
And if we fail to sway Parliament, and fail to temper this rampant ‘Big Society’ ideology? The spirit of Warren James will have to answer. For non-scholars of the 1831 Dean Forest Riots, I should explain that means fence-destroying and mass trespass of newly enclosed or privatised land; or even summoning up the spirit of John Williams from the 17th-century Western Rising, it means dressing up as the warlike Lady Skimmington, fence-destruction and the playing of rough music outside the homes of the gentry.
“They’ll suck out the egg if they once prick the shell”. That 1884 phrase resonates now. We must reverse the situation so the “they” is us and the egg is this warped, right-wing oligarchy. Time to fight most fiercely to keep not only our health, our libraries and education, but also our fresh air.
Do your bit now.
Owen Adams is a writer and promoter. Visit